My doctor recommended the South Beach Diet this week, so I've started reading the book, and I like everything except parts of some of the "success stories." They're filled with comments describing how people felt when they'd gained weight:
- "I was about 25 pounds overweight at 174 and a real couch potato. I was pretty disgusted with myself..."
- "I had been invited to a wedding and told a friend of mine that I didn't even want to go because I was so depressed about how I looked."
- "There wasn't a remote possibility that I was going to put on a bathing suit. I thought, Here I am, I'm not that old, I'm a pretty attractive woman, and I can't wear a bathing suit. And I'm not talking about a bikini; I mean a plain old one-piece."
And how they felt after losing the weight:
- "I love myself again."
- "I fit into my old clothes again. I wear tight, sexy jeans and can still wear sleeveless tops."
- "I'm amazed by how many guys are asking me out."
It was hard to read, because I'm all too familiar with the message: being fat makes you disgusting, unlovable, and unsightly, and the best you can do is hide your body as much as possible until you finally lose the weight - at which time you'll become worthy of affection, and can finally crawl out of your whole and start enjoying life again.
This attitude is deeply ingrained in American culture. People consider it normal - and even obligatory - to shame and criticize fat people, often publicly. Fat people are stereotyped as lazy, stupid, unclean, desperate for dates, and lacking impulse control. And of course, unattractive. Because of this, fat people are taught to hate themselves, and non-fat people are taught to be terrified of becoming fat. Studies show that children as young as 5, 6, and 7 are worried about their weight. 42% of first-, second- and third-grade girls want to lose weight, and 50%-70% of normal-weight girls ages 6-12 think they are overweight. In one study, more than half of females age 18-25 would prefer to be run over by a truck than to be fat, and two-thirds would choose to be mean or stupid rather than fat.
Yes, the obesity crisis and its related deleterious health risks are real. Many people - myself included - need to make permanent lifestyle changes to improve chances of living a longer, healthier life.
But negative self-talk and fat shaming are not the answer.
In fact, negative body image makes it harder to lose weight. Studies have shown weight discrimination and stigmatization actually increase the risk for obesity. Campaigns to combat obesity that rely on fat-shaming are not motivational and just don't work. Negative body image also encourages poorer mental health outcomes; girls who are unhappy with their bodies, whether overweight or not, are at a significantly greater risk of attempting suicide.
Why am I talking about all this? Because it makes me sad, and it's 100% preventable.
Let's start more conversations about body image. Let's teach our youth that positive body image is not the enemy of better health. People take care of things that they love and value, and it's much easier to be kind to a body you love than a body you hate.
And let's stop tolerating concern trolls - those who pretend to care about a person's health but then go on to attack their appearance and self-esteem. It's as simple as practicing the golden rule. Treat other people - yes, even fat people - as you want to be treated, and hopefully as a society we'll lose the perception that being fat is worse than being run over by a truck.
Despite years of surrounding myself with body positive messages and practicing intentional self-love, I still struggle with a lot of the sentiments shared in those South Beach Diet testimonials. I went to two weddings this summer and wondered a lot if I'd look all fat and gross in the photos. And none of my self love has made its way to my arms - I wear sleeves, sweaters or shawls under any and all circumstances, including at the pool, in formal wear, and with sundresses in 100 degree heat.
But I've still come a long way. On most days, I feel pretty darn cute. I find super-cute plus size clothing online. I send selfies to my girlfriends, who I know will respond, "girl YASSSSS you look great." I had a blast at my friends' weddings. And I surround myself with a support system of friends and medical professionals who keep me accountable along my health journey while also being clear that I am an amazing, intelligent, beautiful person deserving of love and respect today, right now.